Denise Fenzi is the founder of the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (FDSA). She has competed in a wide range of dog sports, titling dogs in obedience, tracking, Schutzhund, Mondioring, herding, conformation, and agility.
She is best-known for her flashy and precise obedience work, as demonstrated by two AKC OTCH dogs and perfect scores in both Schutzhund and Mondioring sport obedience. Her specialty is in developing motivation, focus, and relationship in competition dogs, and she has consistently demonstrated the ability to train and compete with dogs using motivational methods in sports where compulsion is the norm.
To be released 2/16/2018, featuring Julie Flanery, talking about all the things you were never taught in puppy class.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we’ll be talking to Denise Fenzi.
At this point, Denise probably needs to introduction, and I want to save every minute of this interview that we can for what we’re here to talk about today: the benefits of play.
So welcome back to the podcast Denise!
Denise Fenzi: Hi Melissa. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: I’m excited. This is a good topic. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who each of the dogs is that you share your life with right now?
Denise Fenzi: I have three dogs. Raika is the oldest. She’s 13-and-a-half and doing very well. There’s Lyra, and I believe she’s about 6 now, and she is also doing well. And there is little Brito, my terrier mix. He’s 4 now.
Melissa Breau: It seems like it was not long ago that you got him.
Denise Fenzi: Yeah. Every time I think about it, I’m kind of amazed at how time goes by.
Melissa Breau: As I mentioned in the intro, we’re going to talk about play today… and I think a lot of people who sign up for your class on the topic, they’re thinking about one thing: its benefits for competition. So do you want to just briefly talk about what those are, and how play fits into the competition picture?
Denise Fenzi: Sure. My online play class covers personal play, which is interaction without toys and food, and also covers toy play and play with food. Most people, when they talk about play, personal play, are thinking in terms of what they can do when they go in a competition ring with their dog when they don’t have their cookies and toys. That’s actually pretty understandable and is actually what caused me to explore the issue in the first place. But the longer I’ve been playing with it, and teaching the class, and exploring the topic, the more I’ve realized that the question’s a little bit premature. It probably makes more sense to think about play in terms of building the underlying relationship, and less energy should be spent on what you are going to do with that play.
The reason it matters is because the play you can use in the ring may have absolutely nothing to do with the play you do at home while you are working to develop your relationship. But you can’t jump ahead. You have to go through the process. So it’s kind of an issue of goal versus process.
I have noticed — I’ve taught this class many times now, I would say maybe five times — and I have noticed that the students come into the class with a different perspective. The very first time I taught the class it was kind of universal. Every person said the same thing, which is, “But how will I use this in competition?” And honestly, this term, so far not one student has actually said that. So change is taking place. I don’t know if it’s because the reputation of the class has encouraged that, or if it’s our student base has developed and they see things differently. I’m not sure, but it certainly has saved me some time writing to people, “Please let’s focus on the process for now. We’ll get to that later.”
Melissa Breau: What kind of benefits can learning to play with your dog really have on that underlying relationship?
Denise Fenzi: The one I usually bring up first is that to play well with a dog without food or toys requires an incredible amount of attention to how the dog is responding to what you are doing, kind of on a second-by-second basis, because if you do something that you think is attractive to your dog and your dog has a different opinion, you have about a half a second to figure that out before your dog avoids you. Now I look at this as all a great big learning opportunity, so it’s not a problem that your dog runs off when you do something. You say to yourself, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t do that again.”
What I find is that the process of teaching play is probably the fastest way for me to teach people how to observe their dog’s body language, because everything is so immediate. The handler does something, the dog responds, the handler responds, the dog gives a final response, and if you made good decisions at those two junctures, then you will have a good response or a neutral response, and if you misread the dog’s behavior, you will get instant feedback, and I find that’s invaluable.
Melissa Breau: So how does that compare or maybe mix with play’s role as a motivator for training?
Denise Fenzi: Well, within training, if I still have my food and my toys, I primarily use it as a way to break up sessions. For example, over the last month I’ve been recording every single session with Lyra and Brito learning to heel on my right-hand side, which is a new thing for all of us. That means I’m spending longer than I should on each training session. So let’s say that an ideal training session with a new skill is a minute, which is probably about right. After I’ve taken the time to set up the video camera and make it happen, just for purely pragmatic reasons I cannot do that. But what I can do is train for a minute, stop, and play with my dog. It can be as little as five seconds. As a matter of fact, it often … that would be normal. Five seconds, 10 seconds, maybe 15 or 20 seconds — that would be unusual — and then I can ask for another minute or two.
Those little mini-breaks relax everyone. They relax me and the dog, and they let go of the stress which is invariably part of learning. So while positive reinforcement training is designed to be fun and to be low stress, that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the dog or the human is not getting it right and that builds up stress. So being able to play in the middle of a session is really a fantastic thing for everyone. If nothing else, it reminds the handler of why they have their dog, and it reminds the dog that “Everything’s good, mama still loves me even if I make some mistakes, everything is fine here.”
Melissa Breau: I know you touched on this a little bit already, but how does learning to play really help people read their dog and why is that beneficial?
Denise Fenzi: I think for anybody involved in dog training, being able to read your dog is 90 percent of the game. It’s actually so significant that now when people describe to me what is happening with their dog, I almost refuse to answer if I don’t have a video, because I find it so common that I see something different than they see. So when people can see what their dog is doing and accurately interpret it, their training is going to skyrocket. It’s hard to underestimate the value of accurately reading your dog’s behavior.
For example, when dogs walk off in the middle of training to sniff, the vast majority of novice trainers see that as the dog finding something better to do. They found a good smell. It takes a lot of time to learn that most of the time the dog is actually avoiding you, and while that’s a little uncomfortable, recognizing it for what it is, it’s not a condemnation of you as a person. It simply means that whatever you are doing at that moment at that time is causing distress to your dog. It’s nothing more than that. So if I’m in a training session and it seems to be going OK, and my dog starts to scratch or shows some other sign of distress, I don’t get upset about it. I just change my ways. That is something that play can give to you — that quick ability to in real time instantly identify how your dog is feeling.
And while I specifically called that distress, that’s equally true of a happy dog. So what are your dog’s happy signals? What do the ears do? What does the mouth do? What do the eyes do? What does the tail do? There’s a lot to the picture. And there’s just the sheer fun of it, right? So for the handler to look at their dog and recognize their dog really wants to be there, and to feel confident in that assessment, that really does amazing things for your training.
Melissa Breau: What about specifically for anxious dogs? Are there benefits to learning to play for those dogs?
Denise Fenzi: Personally, I don’t go in that direction in my classes. What I tell people is, “My job is going to be to help you become a better play partner to your dog.” That is my emphasis. However, I know that, for example, Amy Cook, who also teaches at the Academy, she uses play as a way of relaxing dogs in stressful situations, and also as a barometer for the dog’s suitability for the place where it’s at. So being able to play with an anxious dog is actually super-critical to behavior work. The other thing is, in my opinion, when you play with your dog, what you’re able to tell them is that everything’s OK and that you’re on their side. To be able to communicate that is a big deal. If I’m with somebody and I’m feeling a little nervous, they can absolutely hand me something to eat, it will certainly distract me. But if they put their hand on my shoulder and tell me, “You know what? It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. I’m right here with you,” that’s a completely different level of support. And I think being able to play with your dog, especially with an anxious dog, will take you in the right direction.
Melissa Breau: What about me as the human or handler? Is play really all about the dog, or are there benefits for me, too?
Denise Fenzi: A few years ago I was going to give — not a webinar — a presentation on play to an audience, and I thought it might be a tough sell to that particular audience. So I felt the need to have a little bit of background and backup for my assertion that I think play is important — and I sure hope nobody contacts me and asks me for the information now, because I don’t have it anymore — but I found quite a few studies which talked about the effects on both the dog and the handler on mutual interaction. In some cases the interaction was simply looking at each other. In other cases it was playing together, sometimes it was about playing ball or whatever. And there was just a lovely thread of discussions about how the hormones on both sides of the picture here, for both the dog and the human, the happy hormones went up, the sad hormones went down, and the end result is a more content picture. Like I said, I don’t have that anymore, but I’m sure if somebody wants to investigate it they can find that information again.
Melissa Breau: It would be interesting to look up some of that stuff and be able to point to some of those studies. I know that you also teach engagement, obviously, so do you mind just talking a little bit about how play, or being able to play with your dog, can impact or influence your engagement training? And maybe just start out with a little bit of explanation on what engagement training is, for those who may not know.
Denise Fenzi: The word engagement is a little bit complicated, because when we say “to engage another,” we simply mean to mutually interact. When I talk about engagement training, I’m actually talking about a very specific training process which teaches the dog that it’s their responsibility to let the handler know, first of all, when they’re comfortable, and secondly, that they would like to work. The second part of that involves the dog engaging the handler in play or strong interactive behaviors. So an example of play would be that the dog play-bows at the human and the human responds. An example of just a strong behavior might be that the dog jumps on the person. So there’s variations. I teach engagement online, and I find that students who already have developed some repertoire of play with their dog have a much easier time with it because, first of all, it actually occurs to their dog to offer play, because engagement is a shaped process. It crosses the dog’s mind that maybe they should ask the owner to play and see what happens next. So that’s a huge benefit right there. The handlers who don’t have play training or some comfort with play, they struggle. Not only do their dogs not think to offer it, but even if their dog does think to offer it, they don’t know what to do next, and so now it sort of stops the process of training engagement and we redirect into the process of training play. And while that’s not terrible, I just find that most people came into engagement class to learn engagement, and the ones who came in with play already make a lot more progress on that skill, and the ones who have to stop and redirect simply don’t go as far. Now that’s no emergency, but for sure having play skills will make your engagement training easier.
Melissa Breau: Let’s assume that some of the folks listening are convinced… they want to give this a go, they want to focus on trying to play more with their dog. Where should they start? What are some good ways to start play, especially if it hasn’t been a big part of life with their dog before now?
Denise Fenzi: Well, right off the bat, loud and crazy is probably not the direction you want to go. Generally when people think about play, they think they’re going to imitate how dogs play with each other. That’s a little unrealistic in terms of a place to start. So unless you’re 5 years of age, you are not going to run around the back yard like a crazy person with your dog, and even if you did, your dog would think that was so bizarre and out of character that you would actually be likely to frighten your dog. And then I’ve noticed that people get a little intense and nervous because that’s not the response they were looking for, and that’s when they start to sort of, for lack of a better word, assault their dogs. They come up and start — they call it “playfully,” but anyway — they start pinching and pulling and doing weird things, and that drives the dog further into avoidance. So Rule Number One: start low key. I find it so much more effective to start with what we would normally call praise rather than play. Pet your dog, scratch their ears, gently and sweet. Now, from there, can you ratchet that up to look something like what happens when you walk in the front door and your dog is glad to see you? So maybe you went from a gentle massaging-type interaction, let’s call that a 1 or 2 out of 10, to something a little more “Oh boy, you’re home, Mom, I’m so glad to see you.” Let’s say that’s in your 3 to 6 range, depending on your dog. Can you start to get that behavior you get at the front door in your play session when you don’t have that context? What do you do at the front door? How do you interact with your dog? Do you clap? Do you pet them? Do you talk to them? And what happens, and what does your dog look like at that moment? What kind of an expression does your dog have? All of that should feel fairly natural and seamless to most people. From there we can start ratcheting up, and little taps and running away. That brings me to my second rule of thumb: I generally strongly suggest that people try to figure out on a scale of 1 to 10, what energy level is your dog showing you right now, and can you match that plus or minus 1? So if your dog’s being kind of crazy, and you don’t really want to hang out at a 10 with a Great Dane, the problem is you can’t go to a 1 because you’re not going to register and your dog’s going to leave you. So can you get to a 9, and then quickly to an 8 and a 7 and a 6 and a 5? From my point of view, it’s perfectly legitimate to put a toy in the dog’s mouth or use food for redirection, if it’s really rambunctious and you need to get your dog to a level that’s more sustainable for both of you. But using the matching system, the number system, helps a lot. It helps people match their dog and stay in the game without it getting out of control, feeling free to add food and toys if you need to. This is a little bit new for me. A few years ago I tried to do a lot more without that, and I don’t do that as much. And also starting on the low end of the scale and working your way up — that is also something I would say is new to me. Over time I have discovered that works much, much better for all parties. The final thing I would mention is really watch for signs that your dog isn’t having a good time, and take your dog seriously. Respect that. So if you can get one great minute, that’s fantastic. Just stop. Don’t go for 5 or 10. And if your dog says they want a little break, honor that. It’s not personal. Your dog didn’t take a break because they think you’re horrible. Your dog took a break because he needed one and he recognized that he was struggling with his own arousal — too high, too low, whatever. If you pursue, you will drive your dog into avoidance. So I think I would start with that package and see where that gets you.
Melissa Breau: Do you mind just talking a little bit more about that toy piece? What made you change your mind, or how can people use that in a way that it doesn’t become all about the toy?
Denise Fenzi: Well, I think a lot of it was simply safety. Dogs can hurt us with their teeth, whether they mean to or not, and if you give the dog a toy, and they chomp on the toy instead of on your arm, that’s obviously a lot more pleasant. There’s all sorts of other things that go with that, you know — habits, and teaching your dog that it hurts when you bite, and all kinds of stuff. The problem is, asking a dog not to use their mouth in play is a lot like asking a human child not to use their hands. That is how dogs communicate with each other. It’s how they communicate in play. And so if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to spend a lot of time teaching them how to do that. So in the same way that if you tried to teach a child to play with their hands behind their back, while doable, if you gave them something to hold in their hands behind their back while they were doing that, they would be much more likely to remember, and it would give them something to do with their hands, to grip a thing. If you give the dog something to hold, and they have those urges to bite down or to grab, they have something in their mouth already. With Lyra, I don’t think I tried to play with her without a toy in her mouth until she was probably 2 years old, and what I discovered is after that time we had made enough progress that she didn’t need it anymore. And so then, when the toy was out of her mouth, she didn’t have that desire to grab me. She knew what to do. And the time when the toy was in her mouth gave both of us time to learn how to play with each other and kept us out of over-arousal situations while we were learning the game. So it solves a lot of problems. Now if the dog says, “It’s all about the toy. If the toy’s in my mouth, then let’s play with it,” that’s actually not that much of a problem. What I do is I will pull on the toy, let’s say every 10 seconds, just enough to keep the dog holding it. But the rest of the time is spent quick little tap, run away, little play bow, clapping, finding ways that the dog keeps the toy in their mouth but redirects their energy to me. When I say the dog holds a toy, I don’t mean you never touch the toy, and I don’t mean it’s not OK to play with the toy a little. It’s a balance issue. So let’s say the first day it’s 50/50: 50 percent of the time you’re playing with the toy and 50 percent of the time you’re playing with the dog. The next day could you get that to 48/52? So over time can you get it to the point where it’s 10 percent toy, 90 percent dog, and eventually can you get it where you take the toy away from the dog, play with the dog for 10 seconds, and then go get the toy together and go back to your 90 percent playing with the dog, 10 percent toy. That’s how I’m approaching it these days.
Melissa Breau: That’s really interesting to hear how you’ve evolved that concept a little bit. What about those people who want to do this, they try to play with their dog and … their dog just doesn’t seem to be interested. What might be going on there? Is there still hope that they can figure this out, that they can do this?
Denise Fenzi: Well, there’s definitely hope. I’m actually amazed at how many people who go through the play class make significant progress when they were pretty sure they weren’t going to get anywhere. And, in fairness, I have read some introductions where my initial reaction was, “This is going to be really hard.” And most people progress. Now I define progress exactly as that word states. It’s progress. I’m not a goal-oriented person, so what I’m looking for is did we move forward? If we moved forward, I’m probably pretty happy, and I find most of my students get there. So is there hope? Absolutely positively. Might it look the way you thought it was going to look? Might it look like your neighbor’s dog? Well, maybe, but that’s not really the point. It doesn’t need to look like your neighbor’s dog. It needs to work for you and your dog, and honestly, if that never gets past the point where you are able to scratch your dog’s head and thump your dog’s side, even though you’re in the middle of a training session and you have access to food and toys and your dog knows it, I’m happy, because as soon as I can get the dog off that look of “Don’t touch me, I want my food and toys,” I’m going to be happy. That to me is a huge success. So rethink your goals, and make sure that you’re really being reasonable, and I think you will progress.
Melissa Breau: If people want to see some examples of this stuff, if they’re having a little trouble picturing it, because some of this stuff is complex and it’s hard to visualize, can you talk about where they might be able to go to find some of those examples, which pieces of this you cover in class?
Denise Fenzi: This particular class I believe has over a hundred videos. It’s incredibly dense and complex. One of the cool things about the class itself is the active students, the ones that are learning. Every term I learn a new way to play with a dog. Somebody does something I’ve never seen before and I go, “Oh, I never thought to cover the dog with a towel and snap it off. I never thought to cover myself with a towel and let the dog find me.” So little things like that. It’s a constant process of evolution. Deb Jones and I did write a book on the topic of play, so the third book in the Dog Sports Skills series is on the topic of play and has an awful lot of detail. Having said that, I would say that between a class and a book, this is something … I think you make a lot more progress if you watch videos, because it is so second-by-second, so that is one place where I think video would serve you well. I’ve never actually searched YouTube for videos of playing with a dog, but you know what, if you are not interested in taking classes, that’s not your cup of tea, and you don’t really want to sit down with a book, the first thing I would probably do is go to YouTube and search “playing with a dog,” and something has got to come up. It has to. In this day and age there’s so much out there. That’s probably where I would start. The second thing I would do, if I really wanted to go it myself, is just go back through this podcast, because I gave you a lot of places to work from and a lot to start with, and just give it a shot. See what you get. If you end this podcast feeling inspired to try it, then you’re halfway there already.
Melissa Breau: I was actually going to add to that, if you don’t mind, that I think that some of the TEAM videos have some really nice examples of engagement, and some of those samples of engagement have really nice pieces of play in them, if people wanted to see some additional examples. That’s just on the TEAM site free.
Denise Fenzi: Not only that. I forgot about that. The Fenzi TEAM Players Facebook list is very active, and a couple three weeks ago I did do a flash challenge on the topic of engagement. So many people did put up their examples of working on engagement, and because it was a flash challenge, I respond to those videos, so I would have given my input and my thoughts on that. That would have been playing more specifically focused towards engagement and work, but regardless, you got to see play there, so maybe join that list.
Melissa Breau: That list is free, right? Anybody can join that. They’re welcome to join.
Denise Fenzi: Sure.
Melissa Breau: Just a last question here. If somebody does want to take the class, is there a dog that’s good for the class, or maybe not a good fit for the class? Is there anything they should think about from that stance?
Denise Fenzi: This term I probably have the widest variety of dogs, off the top of my head, that I’ve ever had. Let me think about it. I have a Great Dane, a Mastiff, then I have some more typical dogs, Sheltie, Corgi, then I have some teeny guys. I’ve got a Chihuahua, a softer. more fragile dog, I have a small mix, I think she said it was 10 or 11 pounds. I do believe there might be an Aussie in there, a Corgi. I have much greater size discrepancies than I’ve ever seen before, so I’ve got the tiniest and the largest, which is fun and interesting. I have non-players. I have dogs that have shown no interest whatsoever in a toy. And actually those dogs, the first week’s lectures, the ones that have been released this week, are all about toy play. So we are focused on toy play right now, but I’ve seen the baselines for all types of play. So right off the bat the toy play’s going really, really well, and the owners are excited because they’re seeing things they hadn’t expected. Next week, around the 9th or so, is when I start releasing the personal play lectures, and having seen the baseline, there’s going to be a little of everything. There are going to be dogs that tend toward over-arousal, and there are going to be dogs that think it’s all kinds of crazy and don’t want to stay in the game at all, maybe showing avoidance, and I think there will be some middle ground as well. My personal preference when I teach a class is an incredible variety of dogs, and when people join the class I really try to encourage them to understand that there are no good dogs or bad dogs, there are just dogs. So it’s OK, the responses your dog gives you, they’re not right responses or wrong responses. They’re just the response that the dog gave you, and we can just keep changing direction. That’s no problem. We explore and look for what works for a more serious dog, a more anxious dog, not an aggressive dog but an assertive dog, and try to find a way, find a route, that makes you love your dog a little bit more and makes your dog think you’re just a wee bit more interesting than they did yesterday. Which does bring up a point I meant to say and I forgot it. In my experience, when I go back and read my survey results for this class, probably the most common thing that people say to me at the end of class is that they’re surprised at how much more their dog watches them in life. Without being trained to do so, the dog simply finds them more worth their while than they did before, and the dog checks in more. So when they go on walks, the dog just checks, “Are you coming? What are you doing?” The dog just seems to recognize that they offer more than Pez-dispenser-style training. They’re more than a food dispenser or a toy machine. They are a valuable person who means more than the next person, and if I get that feedback, if I get that result, then I have won, and I feel very good about that.
Melissa Breau: That’s awesome, and I think that’s a great point. There’s some really great gems in there for people that want to tease them out. Thank you so much, Denise, for coming back on the podcast. It was great to chat again.
Denise Fenzi: It’s always great to be here, Melissa. Thank you.
Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We’ll be back next week, this time with Julie Flanery, and we’ll be talking about the things no one ever told you in puppy class. That is, we’ll be diving into some of my favorite topics — handler mechanics, verbal cues, all those types of things.
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Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.